NBA Monday Musings – are the Lakers already done?

The NBA returned gloriously last Tuesday night, ending one of the longest offseasons in recent years with the changes in the NBA calendar because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This year finally returns to normalcy, but things feel far from normal on the court. 

MVP candidates look out of sorts, all-star teams can’t figure it out and tanking teams have the best record in the NBA. While it’s a long way between now and the postseason, we can sift through and discover what is fact and what is fiction to start the season. 

The Los Angeles Lakers look helpless on offense

Nobody knew where to put the Lakers in the Western Conference before the start of the regular season, and after three games in it feels like the answer is the cellar. While the schedule was demanding out of the gate and the losses are competitive, it’s not competitive enough to get me sold on this team, mainly because they cannot shoot the basketball. 

The problem with the Lakers isn’t just that they can’t shoot the basketball, it’s seemingly all they can do on offense. Despite ranking dead last in the NBA with a 21.2 percent 3-point shooting rate (eight percent lower than the next lowest team – the Chicago Bulls without two guards in the lineup), Los Angeles takes the seventh most attempts from distance in the league. They currently average 39.3 attempts per game, compared to just 54 attempts from 2 per game. A lot of that has to do with spacing. 

There two most used lineups involve LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. While they are all great around the basket, nobody respects the outside game, particularly Westbrook and Davis. Two players who made the NBA 75th anniversary team, and they’re being openly mocked on the basketball court when they shoot. 

It’s safe to assume the numbers will get slightly better, but something has to change for this team to be a play-in team. You can’t just blame the injuries anymore like last season. Whether that means Russ for Turner and Hield or Russ for Hayward and Rozier, this team won’t get any better. 

Luka Doncic and Christian Wood – the new Nash and Stoudemire?

Wood was had basically for free this offseason, after another tumultuous stint in Houston last season. The book on him was simple, super talented but not the best teammate. He was viewed as a disaster on defense with multiple issues off the court and in the locker rooms.

The unaccounted-for variable for Wood was the situation he was finally going into. This was his first real chance to play on a competitive basketball team, with a set leadership and power structure to help guide him along the way. More questions arose in training camp when it was reported he would be coming off the bench, which was mostly brushed aside.

Two games in, things look better than advertised for the Dallas Mavericks. Wood is averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds per game off the bench, playing more minutes than JaVale McGee. This has led to interesting changes in how Dallas is doing things on offense. 

The Mavericks have the second-highest offensive rating in the NBA through the first week of the season, and if it wasn’t for a letdown in the last six minutes against Phoenix, are probably sitting at the most impressive start of the season. The two biggest changes are free throws and pace. 

Dallas has averaged 35 free throw attempts per game in their first two games, which is the highest in the league. This is compared to last season, where they were 22nd with 21 free throw attempts per game. It’s not a sustainable number, but with Doncic and Wood staying aggressive, could end up in the top half of the league (Wood is averaging 12 free throws per game). Some of these numbers will cool down, like their 43 percent shooting from 3, but it shows changes added to the offensive game this offseason.

The second part is pace, where the Mavericks are currently 23rd in the league compared to dead last a year ago. It’s not a significant jump, but it’s enough to keep defenses honest. Dallas was largely predicated on isolation scoring from Doncic and Jalen Brunson last season, now they’re generating easy baskets for themselves. 

Dallas thrived off of great defensive play and Doncic’s brilliance on offense last season. Among duos with 30 minutes on the court this season, Wood and Doncic have a 147.6 offensive rating, the second-highest mark in the NBA. Wood and Tim Hardaway Jr., Dallas’ first two guys off the bench, aren’t far behind with a 138 offensive rating. The Mavericks might have struck gold in the trade.

PS. NBA, make off-the-backboard assists a thing. Doncic’s assist might be the best pass I’ve ever seen, the fact that it doesn’t count is a travesty. Be more fun! 

The Utah Jazz are undefeated… wait, what?

Danny Ainge can’t escape the inevitable. Brad Stevens led the team to a top seed when he wanted to continue accumulating high draft picks in Boston. Now with Will Hardy, the Utah Jazz is rolling, off to a perfect start to the season. 

While it’s fair to fans shouldn’t start booking their NBA Finals trips to Salt Lake City, this team does seem to be underrated from the offseason. It’s very apparent the lack of star power on this team, but there are a lot of good professionals on this team. How many guys would the Lakers want from this roster in their rotation? Probably nine, if not more. The newest additions are making the biggest splashes, however, starting with the instant impact of Lauri Markkanen. 

After a standout Eurobasket performance in the summer, Markkanen has picked up where he left off in the first three games, averaging 24 points and 9.7 rebounds per game to start the year. Moving back to the power forward spot after an awkward fit last season in Cleveland, Lauri looks liberated out on the court, and Hardy is allowing him to be aggressive on offense. 

The skill set was always in place for Markkanen to be a high-level offensive player, but he’s never had the keys to an offense. Along with his rise, the Jazz deploys dynamic offensive lineups with lots of shooting and are taking advantage of it. Utah is currently first in 3-pointers made this season and eighth in efficiency. They take and make a lot of them, leading to a lot of early upset wins. 

Another player who is doing his part is Walker Kessler, a virtual throw-in to the Rudy Gobert trade this summer. The rookie out of Auburn has shown the rim-protecting prowess that made him one of the best high school prospects in the country, averaging two blocks per game off the bench. 

Utah needed a rim-protecting option when opting to start Markkanen and Kelly Olynyk as their bigs this season. Kessler is thriving in that role and is one of several rookies shining to start the new year. 

Things will eventually even out in Utah. They won’t lead the league in 3-pointers made, and opponents will eventually make more than 29 percent of their threes against the Jazz. The Markkanen and Olynyk defensive tandem will also begin to rear its ugly head. For now, Jazz fans don’t want to hear that, they just want to enjoy the win.

Quick hits

  • The Boston Celtics have the best offense in basketball to start the season. A big part of that has been the shooting off the bench, with Grant Williams at 80 percent from 3 to start the year and Sam Hauser at 71. Malcolm Brogdon, who currently can’t shoot, looks like a great get for the team, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have hit the ground running.
  • Rookie starts have been one of the biggest developments of the season. Paolo Banchero, Keegan Murray, Jaden Ivey, and Bennedict Mathurin currently look like the best of the bunch in the first few games, but nearly a dozen players have all shown flashes of brilliance this season. It could be a special, special class.
  •  At this rate, Doc Rivers might not make it until Christmas as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. While it’s fair to question how the defense would look with James Harden and Tyrese Maxey starting, the offense also isn’t getting it done. Philadelphia is second to last in scoring this season, ahead of only the Lakers, and isn’t making it easy for themselves. They’re the slowest team in the league by the pace and have only had 64 percent of their 3-point field goals assisted, by far the lowest mark in the league.

Welcome to the show, rook

Desmond Bane was having a tough time against Luka Doncic to start Saturday’s game between Memphis and Dallas, so rookie David Roddy quickly checked into the game to try and slow down the multi-time All-NBA player. The results went about how you would expect them.

Doncic had 21 points in the first eight minutes of the game, with Roddy his muse for a lot of that stretch.

Aging wonder

Chris Paul is still doing a lot of things at a high level at 37 years old. One of those things is not scoring. Paul is currently averaging eight points per game through the first three games on just 35 percent shooting. Even worse, he’s just 1-12 on 3-point attempts this season.

The Suns are 2-1 and Devin Booker is playing well to start the year, but it’s hard to imagine Phoenix as a legitimate finals contender without a better-scoring version of the Point God.

Dame Time

Twice in the first week of the season, Damian Lillard pointed to his wrist. 

Neither was a game-winner, but Lillard’s back-to-back 41-point performances have the Portland Trailblazers 3-0. We love jumping to conclusions as basketball fans, so through week one, Damian Lillard is the MVP. 

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